Sunday before Mardi Gras

Tuesday is the big day. Normally a holiday for our citizens, and a welcome one at that, this year we have some representatives of the North American Mission Board coming to town–they’re good people, but they don’t keep up with the local calendar–and some of us will be spending the day with them.

Sunday morning, I preached at Oak Park Baptist Church on the West Bank of New Orleans. They were commissioning their Sunday School teachers for the year; like everyone else down here, they’re running a little off schedule. Interim minister Joe Kay announced that a church in Ruston had sent $10,000 to help install showers in the renovated educational building so they will be able to host volunteers coming to help rebuild the city. He read a letter from a couple who belonged to Oak Park decades ago, sending their love and a thousand dollar check. The church voted today to allow the Billy Graham “Rapid Response” chaplains to live in a residence next door for the next three months. At the end of the service, the altar was filled with members recommitting themselves to pray for this city. State Legislator Jim Tucker, a member of the church, was present. He has a standing invitation to attend our Wednesday pastors meeting in LaPlace to bring us up-to-date on legislative doings.

Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose is defending Mardi Gras, which has become a popular task around these parts, since much of the nation wonders whether the city has lost its mind by staging this party in the midst of the great devastation. He says some of the same things the rest of us have, that 98% of the people in the French Quarter who are guzzling barrel-size beers and flashing their bodies for beads are not from here. They are from “your” town. “You’re watching a mirror of yourselves,” he says to the nation.

Chris Rose is put out with what the media–and some self-serving politicians, I might add–have done to the image of this city, post-Katrina. Listen to the national coverage of our disaster and you come away believing the rich white folks of Lakeview got off easy compared to the poor Blacks of the Lower Ninth Ward. “Never mind,” he writes, “that the flood itself ignored such devices and claimed lives, property and peace of mind indiscriminately and equally across race, class and gender lines and across hundreds of square miles.” He writes, “The failure of the Corps of Engineers was true democracy in action. Or would that be inaction?” Read any paper in the nation commenting on New Orleans’ having a Mardi Gras this year, and it comes out to rich white folks partying at the expense of the neglected minorities.

Rose quotes a friend who lives in the Lower 9th, that she is fed up with the reaction when she tells people where she is from. “They immediately think I am poor, uneducated, have no car, no job, and was too stupid to get out of town when a hurricane comes.” She adds, “I’m not stupid.”

When editor Jim Amoss spoke to the National Press Club recently–I hope you watched it; I was proud of his articulate depiction of our situation–he said that the locals see Mardi Gras largely as a nightly ritual for children. The members of that august body responded with hoots and guffaws.

In my granddaughters’ bedroom Saturday afternoon, I noticed they had strung Mardi Gras beads from the upper bunk, forming a curtain. I said, “Girls, this room is a mess.” They said, “Grandpa, it’s just the beads.” Sure enough, all the clutter on the floor was beads they had caught the evening before at the parade in Metairie.

Take your homecoming parade in your county seat town and have the riders on the floats wear masks and throw beads. That’s Mardi Gras to 90% of the locals. It’s the people from your home town who converge on the city and drink like there is no tomorrow and party like there is no accountability who will go back home and talk with disgust of the wickedness of New Orleans and Mardi Gras.

At least, that’s how the people down here feel about it.

We were saddened by the death of Don Knotts. I learned to love the guy in the 1950s when he had a great routine on the old Steve Allen Show. My high school buddy J. L. Rice and I would copy him and break up no one but each other. You were the best, Barney. Thank you for coming, thank you for the best entertainment on the tube then and ever since, and thank you for sticking around and growing old with the rest of us. I don’t know what your faith was, but I expect you knew the true meaning of some of those hymns we heard you and Andy harmonizing on. I hope not to have seen the last of you, friend.

Here, courtesy of today’s paper, are statistics to help us gauge how things stand at the moment. The population of Orleans Parish has declined from 462,269 pre-Katrina to the present 189,000. Jefferson Parish has dropped from 453,590 to 408,231. Ill-fated St. Bernard Parish went from 65,554 to an estimated 12,000, while Plaquemines dropped from 28,969 to 14,800 (which is primarily the still-functioning Belle Chasse and its naval air station). The civilian work force in the entire area has dropped 32% and yet unemployment has risen from 5 to 8.2%. Go figure.

Before the storm, Orleans had 3,718 restaurants and other eating places. These days, it’s 997. Jefferson dropped from 2,609 to 1,447. St. Bernard went from 418 to 32. Anyone doubting these numbers should try to find a table at noon any weekday.

Hotels in the metro area are down to 240 from 265. Available rooms dropped from 38,364 to 28,500. Hospitals in the metro area dropped from 20 to 14. Hospital beds went from 4,000 to 2,000.

However, FEMA trailers, now there’s a growth industry for you. We’ve requested 69,706 and thus far have occupied 31,517.

Orleans Parish dropped from 212,761 residences with electricity to only 92,685. Jefferson Parish actually increased by one percent, while St. Bernard dropped by 98% and Plaquemines by 51%.

Public schools in New Orleans decreased from 64,270 students to 9,298. Jefferson decreased slightly, St. Bernard went from 8,800 to 1,670, and Plaquemines from 4,975 to 2,973. The number of Catholic schools dropped from 107 to 81, with a 12% decrease in student enrollment.

The discussion continues on a high, professional level on what to do about the grand plan for rebuilding New Orleans, what areas to turn into green space, what tax incentives to offer developers. One expert working with the governor says, “We’ve turned a corner, and now we see how long the road is.” Then, changing her metaphor, she said, “This is the first act of a very long play.”

I wrote to a returning seminary student the other day, “Welcome back. It’s going to be strange at first, living in that island of green in an ocean of devastation. But gradually, the city will be coming back and you’ll be here to welcome it and help it rebuild. It will not be easy, but for the rest of your ministry you will be glad you came and stayed, that you planted your ministry in this needy city at a time when it counted most. I thank you.”